"Achamanam pannikkongo". Vathiar says. You do. It is a simple process by which Brahmin purifies himself mentally and physically – in preparation for what to come next. Any ritual not preceded by achamanam or sanctification of human body becomes an act by a rakshas.
It is also repeated between vedic sub-processes. And towards the end. There is more to achamanam than we think. It is the first before several so has to be correct. When I read about darbhai, I also dived into a whole lot of details about achamanam. The more I learnt about achamanam the more complicated it became for me. But it was revealing how different the way I do achamanam and how far I have moved away from proper practice.
Many things we do as we live our daily life invalidate our purity. A practicing Brahmin is required to do achamanam, purify himself immediately after. In addition we also do sankalpam which is a seamless extension of achamanam.
Books tell about many types but two broad types are smartha and puranic achamanams. The first is quick version invoking the lord 3 times or reciting the 3 parts of Gayatri. The second is elaborate, (insisted for activities such as sandhyavandhana) where we recite mantras and also touch various parts of body with specific fingers. For both, water is poured into cupped hand and swallowed 3 times.
Two important things here, water and chanting of mantra – the latter energises the former which when taken purifies Brahmin. There are Mantra and Tantra angles embedded in the purification practice.
Drinking water improves cognitive performance immediately. Before we get-up to speak in a classroom we drink a glass of water. Taking in few drops of water 2-3 times focusing on specific thoughts brings in attention and focus with little effect on our physiology. Achamanam thus invigorates the body faster.
In the extended version we add angavandhanam - saluting the body. Why should we salute our own body? It is obvious; brahmam resides inside us and we salute many ways the brahmam manifests itself and announces its presence – through: face, eyes, breath, hearing, heart, stomach and brain. Breath is the way brahmam demonstrates life and activity, metabolism in order, controlling by Brain, consciousness with heart etc. Invoking Kesava, Madhava, Trivikrama and rest is to pay obeisance to almighty which controls physical, chemichal and biological functioning of our human body. In this context I read astounding details about how Vedas viewed consciousness and matter and how invoking these names and others such as Sridhara, Padmanabha helps integrating body and soul to make the Brahman focussed and get ready for his karma.
We use alternate fingers as we progress from cheeks to eyes to nose to ears to shoulders to navel various names of Vishnu is mentioned. It is not easy to do angavandhanam unless you coordinate mind and body actions. So achamanam properly done purifies, energises you and helps you focus on the job at hand.
Achamanam is a perfect example of how science and vedic matters comes together.
I know Brahmins doing tharpanam while watching TV, Vathiar chanting Mantra interrupted by phone call he receives, using perfectly convenient ways of doing anushtanams far removed from prescribed rules. The most interesting is the speed with which Vathiar hastens the ritual by deft application of short-cuts so he can be at his next port of call on-time and the kartha can attend to other matters. One look at achamanam rules will scare any jeans-clad modern-day Brahmin, having an FB account.
For both sambradhaya of doing achamanam, the prescribed vidhis are very rigorous. Vidhis are broadly stated as Vyasa, Manu, Mareechi, Saunaka, Samvartha, Parasara, Markandheya – explaining things like, type of water to be used, directions you face, what to say when and how to do, and specifically the posture while performing achamanam. To such an extent that there are rules about what to do with left hand while you are taking water with your right, the quantity of water and if to swallow or sip. The right posture is to sit on soles of your feet and keep hands between the knees. The vidhis are clear about how to perform achamanam, and there are rules prescribing when not to do it.
Interestingly achamanam is prescribed not only for all nitya and naimittika karmas of a Brahmin but also specifies a dozen other occasions (that will occur several times during a day as part of life) when it must be performed. It would appear a true vedic period Brahmin will be only at it for better part of his waking hours. But with a purpose that is indisputable for the duties given to him.
I remember my father-in-law presenting me with a panchapatra and udhurini, and me presenting one set each to both my sons-in law. That five-leaf-water-vessel and spoon will make for an interesting post for another day. Or will not.